Face-to-Face or Click-to-Click?
Victoria mayor Lisa Helps has permanently unfriended (quit) Facebook. Not because of the current controversy about FB practices, but because she feels it’s increasingly a toxic echo chamber rather than a place for civil discourse.
How to manage social media (or not) is something potential candidates for this October’s municipal elections should think hard about. It can be daunting and depressing responding to (or even reading) the vicious, unrelenting verbiage that comes from irate people who think you’re evil or an idiot. Is it healthier to just avoid social media? Or can it actually support useful engagement with citizens?
I am so grateful I exited politics before the social media scene took off. Yes, I had to deal with 4 a.m. phone calls about a sand truck beeping outside someone’s home, and yes, sometimes emails could be unfriendly, and yes, at times I was on the receiving end of dirty looks and cold shoulders.
Those are all normal, human interactions, not necessarily pleasant. But they always offered the possibility of talking with each other, face to face, trying to understand each other’s concerns. Certainly that can be hard and scary work, but it comes nowhere near the anonymous, enraged, unrestrained attacks many elected people, including council members, face these days.
In her blog, Mayor Helps says she used to enjoy conversations on FB, but in the past four years the quality and tone of exchanges have deteriorated and she wants nothing further to do with FB. Helps hastened to point out all the other ways citizens can reach her, including her favourite: the Community Drop-In she hosts in her office every two weeks. She puts the kettle on, and a diversity of people come to talk. Sometimes it’s hard, she says, but generally through conversation anger fades to understanding. Problems even get solved.
The City of Victoria also hosts free, thought-provoking Lunch Time Lectures in council chambers. I watched the webcast of the April 9 session, where the speaker was James Hoggan, author of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot. You can find the webcast of his presentation at www.victoria.ca under the City Hall tab. I’m currently reading Hoggan’s book which centres on interviews with linguists, neuroscientists, activists, philosophers and leaders (like the Dalai Lama).
In the first section of his book, Hoggan explores how we’ve arrived in these toxic echo chambers; what is it about humans or about our society that makes real, respectful communications so difficult to achieve. In the second section, other interviews consider ways to find our way back to healthy and civil debate.
It’s a very interesting, challenging and frightening book. But not hopeless. It’s definitely worth reading if only to better understand the deliberate forces at play in what he calls the “polluted public square.” James Hoggan will be in the Kootenays in mid-June, as a featured presenter at the Convergence Writers’ Weekend in Silverton. The theme of the weekend is Keeping a Civil Tongue, and I’ll also be presenting, using my local government experience to explore the meaning and role of civility for politicians, for writers and for all of us.
This is such an important topic and it’s why I volunteered to be a Human Book at the Nelson library’s Human Library event on April 26, 7 – 9 p.m. My book title is: Politician – your neighbor not your enemy. I hope to bring a human face to the much maligned world of politicians through conversations with participants. Come check me out!
Lisa Helps also worries about research showing how our device usage is rewiring our brains, making us more anxious and less able to focus. In her blog, she refers to research from the University of Sussex where brain scans showed that intense multitasking on devices actually thins the prefrontal cortex. “Our brains are shriveling in the place we need them most – to reason, to have empathy and most importantly to have the emotional intelligence to connect with others,” Helps writes in her blog.
This is important to think and learn more about in our own lives, and those of our children, and also what it means for our politics. Because politics is about community-building and we need our elected officials to have the skills to do that. We don’t want to be governed by people with shrinking brains!
Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.